Nestled among all the racing books on my shelf is one called The Kentucky Derby Vault.  It is an interactive look through Derby history, from its earliest beginnings.  It takes the storied race and all who participated in it from just being words on a page, and invites you into their world.  You can take a replica of an 1889 race program published by the Louisville Jockey Club, and be informed that trains will arrive from Cincinnati in three hours. Perhaps you see the gentility in your mind’s eye, reading this program, as they make their way to the track aboard the train, before ascending to the grandstand on the day in mid-May this program was for.  Or perhaps you pick up the postcard advertising the new Louisville Jockey Club of 1903, when track vice president Matt Winn had a clubhouse built and improved the grandstand. Now you can see the gentility arriving by train having a clubhouse to inhabit.

Perhaps you jumped much further ahead to 1973, and picked up a grandstand ticket in section 126, to discover such a spot would have been $18.75. That’s right, seeing Secretariat begin his romp through the Triple Crown would have cost $18.75.  Even if inflation was accounted for, that had to be a bargain to see him in all his glory right before your eyes. Or perhaps the full page photo of Unbridled, his jockey tucked so neatly into the horse’s neck he looked like one with the horse as they ran for the wire all alone made you pause, and then relive the moment his trainer Carl Nafzger called the race for Unbridled’s 92-year-old owner.   There are so many moments in the Derby vault worth replaying, and as I made my way to Churchill Downs in a small convoy on Derby day 2015, I was adding more memories to my own personal Derby vault.

Some of those memories, to be sure, are the ones read about or seen on TV.  Any hardcore racing fan worth his or her salt will have those in the memory bank.  Those will certainly do until attending the Derby and building up the memories in person become possible.

Definitely, Secretariat is in the vault of my memories.  But that goes without saying. I didn’t have to be born yet to have the big red horse fire my imagination.  Anyone who loves racing would say the same, I’d suppose.  Yet I had what felt like a bit of a personal link to him.  My mom watched his races on TV and hearing her tell how it felt to watch him win the Belmont with such dominance was so breathtaking, so incredible, that it took a few minutes for it to even sink in that he had won the Triple Crown.  Any horse that can capture a classic race that emphatically certainly deserves that to be seen as a sublime triumph in itself.  The bigger picture, of winning the Triple Crown in the process, I can see taking a moment to register.

Then there was Unbridled.  Racing was in my blood and the first Saturday in May meant nothing else but parking in front of a TV to see the Derby unfold.  I was 11 in Unbridled’s year, and I remember his name was one I loved, and the spontaneous race call and “I love you” that Nafzger said to Unbridled’s owner stuck with me, as it did with so many.

It has now been 25 years since Unbridled won his Derby.  I visited Lexington in 2002, just missing seeing him along with all the other stallions and farms I came to see.  But I followed his progeny.  The one that captivated me as he had? Empire Maker.  I believed in this horse fervently, and being unable to get off work while the 2003 Derby was run, I waited in line to place my wager on him in the Derby, longer than was probably necessary.  He didn’t have the measure of blue collar runner Funny Cide that day, but the tables were turned in the Belmont.  Redemption. That may have made me one of the few people rooting against Funny Cide and his owners, who saw their dreams realized beyond belief, but that Unbridled fervor lingered in me.

When Empire Maker sired Pioneerof the Nile who was favored in the 2009 Derby, I was in attendance.  It was my second Derby, and my first time seeing a horse from the Unbridled line run in the classic race in person.  He just had to win!  Of course, Mine That Bird snuck through the rail and Pioneer had no chance to catch him.  It was not his day.

American Pharoah would be the next to take up the cause, son of Pioneer, grandson of Empire Maker, great-grandson of Unbridled.

There’s nowhere better to be than under the spires on the first Saturday in May. That was confirmed among other attendees when I heard someone singing lyrics from the popular song “Uptown Funk”:

“Saturday night and we in the spot” rapidly answered with the next line, “Don’t believe me just watch!”

I read through the litany of familiar jockeys’ names as they all went postward.  In a sense they feel like old friends, these who ride on the Kentucky circuit or are just nationally known, as I follow racing year in and year out.

And then the moment came for one more three-year-old to write his name into Derby history, and American Pharoah did it! He was looming large near the top of the stretch and looked like he had all the run in the world still in him and he did, for he was all alone at the wire, though Firing Line was pressing the issue.

It had been noted ahead of the race that American Pharoah was not battle-tested, but he has class and a deep well of talent too, and there was no denying that when he drew home clear like he did. I felt so much excitement seeing him surge to the front, and it was thrilling too that Espinoza brought him down nearly the whole length of the grandstand and we got to cheer the newest Derby winner right in front of us, as Espinoza tipped his cap to the cheers of the record-setting crowd growing to a crescendo.  It was another glorious moment under the twin spires.

And that is an incredible memory for my own personal Derby vault. I really think it’s the best one I’ve put in that vault since I’ve begun attending. And if you could have bottled that feeling, the same feeling Nafzger had all those years ago when Unbridled won and he was so elated, everyone would be a racing fan.

We left as a glorious sunset illuminated the grandstand and the moon was starting to rise over the track. The twin spires were bathed in a golden glow and then the cool white of moonlight, and gradually faded to dark. The crowd streamed out, the cheers faded to echoes, but Derby day 2015 remains written in memory, and will linger every time I read American Pharoah’s name above the saddling stalls in the year ahead, or in its permanent spot in the line of other Derby winners that stretch across the facility.  It was thrilling for all the elements all the good horses entered brought into it, all the intriguing story lines every Derby carries, and all the potential this field had, but in the end there could only be one wearing the roses, and this year it was such a thrill to know it really was the best horse who won, and to have that moment to share Espinoza’s joy, post-race.


I wasn’t allowed to take my DSLR camera, so these images are not of the usual quality, but I wanted to share them because they still show my experience that day.